In his piece titled The Painter of Modern Life, what does Charles Baudelaire mean by modernity when he states, "By 'modernity' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the continent, the half of...

In his piece titled The Painter of Modern Life, what does Charles Baudelaire mean by modernity when he states, "By 'modernity' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the continent, the half of art whose other half is eternal and the immutable"?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Charles Baudelaire wrote his booklet The Painter of Modern Life as a means of defining true beauty in art. In the piece, he uses criticisms of the artist Charles Guys, named only in the essay as Monsieur G., to explore beauty. In Baudelaire's mind, true art was la boheme, bohemian, meaning unconventional, and he saw  Charles Guys as a bohemian hero. It should also be noted that Guys had also worked as a news "reporter and [a] war correspondent for the Illustrated London News" (Willette, "Baudelaire and 'The Painter of Modern Life'"). As a reporter and war correspondent, Guys was particularly skilled in the craft of observation, and Baudelaire saw that it is due to Guys's powers of observation that also made him such a skilled, unconventional artist and a bohemian hero. He saw Guys as able to create "primitive scribbles" based on his passionate observations, much "like a barbarian, or a child" (as cited in Willette).

The most significant praise Baudelaire had of Guys is that Guys had the ability to "distil" what Baudelaire calls "modernity," to "distil the eternal from the transitory." Baudelaire defines modernity in the quote in question:

By 'modernity' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable. (p. 13)

The term ephemeral refers to that which lasts only a short time; fugitive refers to that which is fleeting; contingent refers to that which is dependent on something else. Therefore, Baudelaire is referring to that which is modern as being short lasting, fleeting, and dependent on other things, the complete opposite of the eternal. Baudelaire also illustrates his view of modernity by referring to artists who reject using costumes in their art as ugly without even trying to search for that which is eternally beautiful in the costumes. Plus, it's important to remember that Baudelaire is using this essay to essentially define what the beautiful is. Hence, in Baudelaire's mind, Guys is able to abstract that which is eternal from modernity through his powers of detailed observation, and express the eternal in his art, which makes it beautiful.

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